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Roman triumph

A report from the Arc of Titus showing a parade with trophies won in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
Autor: Steerpike | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Roman triumph (triumphus) dates back to the royal era. He belonged to the victorious ruler, and at first he was connected with the ritual of cleaning the soldiers – so it was first of all a religious ceremony. Over time, however, it gradually lost its religious character, becoming an increasingly spectacular spectacle to the satisfaction of the parson. Of course, the propaganda function was important, both public and private, eachother family, was also not without significance. Every Roman leader dreamt of having a full triumph.

Essentially, two types of triumphs were distinguished triumphus curulis (so-called great triumph ), during which the triumphant was riding a quadrilateral chariot (currus triumphalis) and ovatio while the chief was riding a horse. However, a distinction was also made between varieties.

As time passed, the potential victor became subject to certain conditions, which he first had to fulfil in order to be able to apply for the right to triumph. These are the following:

Conditions for conferring the right of triumph

  • the victor had to be a current or former dictator, consul or precursor and had to fulfil one of the above mentioned offices during the war;
  • the leader had to act according to the will of gods, that is have the so-called “ius auspicii” in a given area;
  • The leader had to personally command the units;
  • the war had to be waged against the external enemy (civil war was not an option);
  • as a result of the war, new territory had to be incorporated (recovery of the lost territory did not count);
  • in a single battle, at least 5, 000 enemies had to die with proportionately lower own losses;
  • The victor had to bring the army to the walls of Rome.

As I mentioned earlier, we could also distinguish triumph varieties. There were generally four varieties of triumph. The first one was the specific triumph -“big”. (triumphus curulis) held in Rome with the consent of the Senate. If such a permit was not obtained, the leader celebrated at his own expense triumf on Albanian Mountain (triumphus in Monte Albano). This celebration begins in 231 BCE. Its course and significance did not differ from that of the city triumph. However, the right triumph was not for the victory at sea. That’s why a new kind of celebration was developed, called triumphus navalis, which was connected with the setting up of column rostrata in the city. The last variant of the triumph was ovation (ovatio -“a little triumph”, minor triumphus ), the beginning of which dates back to the period of the Republic.

The triumph had two main features: on the one hand it was a tribute to the gods , and on the other hand a tribute to the leader . The sacral element of this institution was supplicationes . It was mainly held on the occasion of victory and in honour of the winner, although it was due to the gods. Over time, the religious aspect has evolved into a secular one. During the Empire period supplicationes were a tribute to the victorious leader. With the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the religious aspect gave way to the political one. Another sacral element was the conviction that triumph is an obligation towards gods, connected through votum with the auspices of the leader. At the same time, the commander, equipped with auspices, received the gods’ consent for the war campaign. Asking for this consent, before leaving for the battlefield, he offered sacrifices in the temple, through which he made requests to the gods, while committing himself to fulfill them. Hence, the spoils and war achievements offered to the gods during the triumph were the fulfillment of the conditions of victory agreed between the leader and the god. The triumph was therefore a sacred duty, hence the refusal to triumph was tantamount to an insult to God and the victor. It is not known how this obligation to God was fulfilled in the event of denial of this honor. The triumph on Albanian Mountain, held without the consent of the Senate, at the request and expense of the leader, could have been a certain solution.

In this celebration appeared also the sacred aspect of magical character. It was contained in the act of passing the triumphal procession through the triumphal gate, which was of purifying significance. The army then freed itself from all the evil that war brought with it. The laurel worn during the feast by a victor or soldier had the same meaning. Apart from the cataractic aspect, we also observe the existence of the apotropic aspect. The defence against demons and evil spirits was provided by amulets placed on the triumphant carriage and the body of the triumphant. Purple robes and facial staining would also have to be apotropic. The word of the slave standing behind the triumphant was to say goodbye to evil spirits.

Segement XX Fasti triumphales, which was published about 12 BCE. It contains list of triumphs from foundation of Rome to August period. This fragment shows the triumphs of the First Punic War.
Autor: Rossignol Benoît | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

And so the triumph was reserved only for those warriors who owned the empire and led the war suis auspiciis. Moreover, this honour could only be granted to Roman citizens by birth. From the time of August, only the emperor and his family members were entitled to it, while the other leaders received the ornamenta triumphalia. The Auspition covered only the duration of the war and ended with crossing the city border (pomerium). If the winner entered Rome before the triumph took place, he immediately lost his right to it because of the lost auspices. For this reason, reports on the course of the war were submitted by the commander to the Senate outside the city walls. The Senate also passed a resolution on the triumph outside the city walls. When granting permission to celebrate the feast, the Senate took into account the conditions that had to be met. The triumph was therefore only a result of a successful war and not of a single battle, and it must have been serious and that of a worthy opponent. Hence the triumph of victory over pirates or slaves could not be achieved. The declaration of war shall be made in accordance with the law, and the commander who was to carry it out shall have the consent and authority of the Senate and the Roman people. The next condition was the type of win. It had to be bloody, overwhelming, and the total number of enemies killed in various battles had to reach at least five thousand. The procedure for granting the triumph was as follows. The victor most often applied for the right to triumph, but there were cases where the Senate itself passed a resolution granting this honour. In case of approval, the Senate provided funds for the organization of the ceremony.

Ovation (ovatio) was a triumph of a lesser rank, awarded to the victorious leaders after the end of the war. Ovation, according to G. Rohde, it was never a separate and independent ceremony. It has always been associated with the right triumph (triumphus curulis). Originally, it was supposed to replace the institution of triumph completely. The latter was perceived negatively at the beginning of the Republic, it was associated with the remnants of times when it belonged only to kings. In the face of the change of political system to a republican one, this relic of the old epoch resembled too much the old royal feast. Hence the Romans’ reluctance to exalt anyone by ovation. However, the tendency to completely replace the solemn triumph with a more modest one – without chariots, triumphant garments, sceptres and laurel wreaths – was reversed by the efforts of the aristocracy, which restored the radiance of the old triumph without abandoning its new form; if the victorious leader did not meet the requirements of a victory that would qualify him for the triumph, then the Senate could adopt a compromise law and refuse this honour or grant an ovation in compensation.

The first years of the Republic were full of numerous triumphant ceremonies, and there were more and more candidates to apply for this type of award. Hence the need to introduce certain requirements and conditions, such as the appropriate number of enemies killed or the acquisition of new areas. It was done in such a way that the glory of the highest honor would not go away and would not lose its meaning. The sources mentioning the ovation are first of all fasti triumphales Capitolini and literary messages by Liwiusz, Plutarch, Appian and Swetonius. On the basis of these sources it is possible to determine the number of approximately 30 ovations, which took place from the beginning of the Republic until the middle of the first century CE. From such a modest number it can be concluded that the new form of celebrating the victory was not very popular. Triumphs were held much more often and more willingly. For comparison, Orosius gives 320 triumphs from the earliest times to Vespasian.

The oldest ovation was sacred in 503 BCE by P. Postumius Tubertus after the victory over the Sabinians. He had another ovation in 211 BCE. M. Claudius Marcellus. We know the course of this event thanks to Titus Liwiusz:

He entered the city with an ovation, a great prey he carried on the front. There was a picture of the Syracuse, catapults, ballistics and other military equipment, the magnificent possessions and riches of the Syracuse rulers, silver and bronze art objects and other objects, expensive robes and many famous statues, which decorated the Syracuse as well as the most ancient Greek cities. Eight elephants were leading as a sign of victory over the Punics. No less the subject of the show were also the Syracuse Sosys and the Spanish Merykus, who were going forward in the golden wreaths. The first one served as a night guide, the second one issued Insula and the local crew.

Titus Livius , The Rise of Rome

August octave celebrated some applause. Swetonius claims to have been the first to take place after the Battle of Filippi, according to the capitol fasti and Dion, in the year 40 BCE, after the peace with Antoni. The second applause took place during the celebrations of November 36 BCE, after the Sicilian victory. In Cicero’s letters we find information about the third, earlier than the mentioned ovation, although we do not know whether it actually took place. Six ovations were approved between August and Hadrian, one of which was a saint by a senator who did not belong to the imperial family. Out of the six ovations granted, only three took place. The ovation of Germanic in 18 CE. as a reward for his success in Armenia, where he held the throne of Artaxyash, did not come about because of the premature death of the young commander. In 21 CE, Tiberius, who returned from the Campaign, rejected the applause adopted by the Senate because he considered it to be an inane praemie. This honour was received in 11 BCE. Nero Claudius Drusus, the brother of Tiberius, whom he wanted to celebrate in this way for his victories in Germany. However, Druzus died on his way to Rome and did not ovate him as a result. Tiberius received such awards at the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries as a reward for the suppression of the Illyrian uprising. In 40 a small triumphant entrance to Rome was made by Emperor Kaligula because of a trip to Great Britain. The last known ovation was recorded in 47 CE.

The course of the triumph

Introduction of Emperor Mark Aurelius to the triumph. It is worth noting that the emperor was shown together with the genius above his head, which is supposed to symbolize the divinity.
Autor: MatthiasKabel | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

The winning commander left the army out of the city and entered it alone to report in detail to the Senate. The Senate considered the request at the time. It was only when he got the permission that he could enter the city. The route was strictly defined and led from the Martian Field, through the Forum Boarium, near Palatine and via Sacra to the Forum Romanum and further to the Capitol.

The triumphant stood on a square (circular in shape, richly decorated with gildings and inlays of ivory, closed on all sides and always harnessed in white horses), dressed in a purple, lined with gold robe, in his left hand held a branch of the laurel, and in his right hand an ivory sceptre topped with an eagle. His face, painted like that of Jupiter, was cinnamon. Behind him, a state slave often stood on a square, holding a gold wreath above his head and reminding him every now and then that he was only a mortal person (“Remember, that you are only a human being”). The procession was opened by members of the Senate and dignitaries, followed by musicians, followed by images of conquered lands and cities, or crossed mountains and rivers. Sacrificial animals were then led, followed by prisoners of war and headed by kings of conquered countries or heads of conquered tribes. It was only after them that the triumphant followed, his troops followed, shouting: io trumphe, and also the Romans who were freed from captivity. The parade took place at the expense of the state. When the Senate refused to grant the triumph, the leader was able to hold it, as I said, at his own expense on Mount Albanska. If, on the other hand, not all the required conditions were met, the so-called ovation was granted. The commander walked on foot, dressed in a simple toga, without a scepter, and the march was not preceded by the Senate. An integral part of the triumph was also the sacrifice in the Temple of Jupiter in Capitol.

After the victory over Pont, Gaius Julius Caesar ordered him to carry the famous inscription: veni, vidi, vici, that is: “I came; I saw; I conquered”. The decorations included paintings of towns, rivers: the Rhine and the Rhône. The ocean was depicted as a young boy painted with gold.


  • Krawczuk Aleksander (red.), Wielka Historia Świata, tom 3
  • Matthews Rupert, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007

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